Obituary: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Published 03/02/2014 | 07:58
Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has died aged 46, was an actor of immense range, whose bulky physique belied a cinematic presence infused with subtlety and grace.
In a little over two decades Hoffman carved out a reputation for delivering strident performances that led to the New York Times describing him as the “greatest character actor of our time”. For many years he stood out in supporting roles - from a louche playboy in Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley to a lovesick high school teacher in Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour.
In 2005, however, he took the title role in Bennett Miller’s Capote, a biopic of the waspish author Truman Capote. As the notoriously tart chronicler of high rollers and transient killers, Hoffman caught the writer’s murky DNA, showcasing his talent for manipulation but also his latent insecurity. “Playing Capote took a lot of concentration,” Hoffman stated, “I prepared for four and a half months. I read and listened to his voice and watched videos of him on TV. Sometimes being an actor is like being some kind of detective where you’re on the search for a secret that will unlock the character. With Capote, the part required me to be a little unbalanced.” The performance was to win him that year’s Academy Award for Best Actor.
His appearance - and in particular his weight - remained a fall-back feature of most journalistic profiles. Hoffman’s wry approach to the veiled criticisms was reminscent of Cyrano de Bergerac’s parry to nasal put-downs. “A lot of people describe me as chubby, which seems so easy, so first-choice,” he said. “Or stocky. Fair-skinned. Tow-headed. There are so many other choices. How about dense? I mean, I’m a thick kind of guy. But I’m never described in attractive ways. I’m waiting for somebody to say I’m at least cute. But nobody has.”
He was instictively comfortable working with many of America’s cinematic auteurs. In particular, his collaborations with the director Paul Thomas Anderson provided many of his most distinctive roles. In Magnolia (1999) he provided warmth and heart - as a kindly male nurse tending to a dying millionnaire - to an otherwise bleak palette of human disarray and in The Master (2012) he held forth as a magnetically-charasmatic leader of a quasi-religious cult (a figure loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard). Likewise Spike Lee, the Coen Brothers, Charlie Kauffman and David Mamet all drew idiosyncratic and memorable performances.
A dedication to the art of acting was to remain the one constant in a career that otherwise defied categorisation (he embraced drama, comedy and thrillers with equal zeal). “Acting is so difficult for me that, unless the work is of a certain stature in my mind, unless I reach the expectations I have of myself, I’m unhappy,” he said. “If you’re doing it well, if you’re concentrating the way you need to, if your will and your concentration and imagination and emotional life are all in tune, concentrated and working together in that role, that is just like lugging weights upstairs with your head. And I don’t think that should get any easier.”
Philip Seymour Hoffman was born on July 23 1967 in Fairport, a picturesque town on the Erie Canal in New York state. His mother, the former Marilyn Loucks, was a lawyer and civil rights activist and his father, Gordon, was a businessman.
Philip was first drawn to drama at Fairport High School, and when he was 17 attended a state-run summer school for the arts. After graduating he moved to New York City to pursue professional training, attending classes at a summer programme run by the Manhattan theatre, Circle in the Square, and finally graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts with a degree in Drama.
While at NYU, Hoffman teamed up for the first time with Bennett Miller, who would later direct him in Capote, to launch a drama company, the Bullstoi Ensemble. Though its principals were undoubtedly talented, the Ensemble was notoriously short-lived, and after leaving NYU Hoffman entered rehab to tackle alcohol and drug problems. He then embarked on the classic career path of the hopeful actor, taking odd jobs, such as stacking supermarket shelves, while auditioning and hoping for his big break.
That break took some years to arrive. However, in 1992 he won his first major role - in Scent of a Woman, which starred Al Pacino as a blind man whose lust for life (and the opposite sex), is only heightened by his “disability”. Hoffman played a boorish, treacherous friend of the student who is recruited to assist Pacino’s character.
More often, however, his pudgy frame seemed to recommend him to casting directors for roles that required self-doubt, self-loathing even. It was with just such a part that he made his leap into the big time.
Paul Thomas Anderson, the director, who had spotted Hoffman in Scent of a Woman, cast him as a boom operator, Scotty, in his epic recounting of pornographic film making in the 1970s, Boogie Nights (1997). The part marked Hoffman out as an actor of range but, typically, his reward was to be cast in formulaic fayre, such as Flawless (1999) a buddy movie with Robert De Niro.
Hoffman flourished in such illustrious company, and repeated the trick of stealing scenes from more established actors in The Talented Mr Ripley. Meryl Streep was among a gathering band of admirers, describing his performance as “fearless”.
Long a favourite of indie directors, Hoffman's rising star was confirmed in such films as The Big Lebowski (1998) and Almost Famous (2000). But the next five years, while providing steady work, did not see him find many great roles. It was with Capote (2005) that his mesmeric ability to metamorphise began to emerge. He lost weight and shifted the timbre of his voice, inhabiting the part completely without descending to simple mimicry.
He next shone in an unlikely role in Doubt (2008), that of a Catholic priest who may, or may not, have abused one of his pupils. The whole conceit of the film demanded that the audience remain undecided, and thus rested on the strength of Hoffman’s performance.
His ability to turn his hand to almost any role was displayed again in Jack Goes Boating (2010), his directorial debut, and also his first romantic role.
A long, inventive and daring career seemed to stretch before him, but in what turned out to be his last years he mostly starred in the mainstream features - such as the Hunger Games series - that he had always dotted between the expressive, idea-driven parts in which he truly excelled.
Other films included: Cold Mountain (2003); Mission Impossible III (2006); Charlie Wilson’s War (2007); Synecdoche, New York (2008); Moneyball (2011) and, most recently, A Most Wanted Man (2014).
It was a sign of his talent, however, that many viewed Hoffman as an even better actor on stage than on screen. Perhaps his best performance came in 2012, in the Broadway revival of Death of A Salesman, for which he received his third Tony award nomination.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, who announced last year that he was once again struggling with addiction, is reported to have been found dead in his apartment, possibly of a drug overdose.
He is survived by his partner, the costume designer Mimi O’Donnell, with whom he had a son and two daughters.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, born July 23 1967, died February 2 2014